Introductory Note: This focus group was held on March 4, 2013 with a group of five Lake County non-migrant youth and Alicia, an adult who runs a treatment foster home program in which Barry had been served.
In addition to Barry and Alicia, Danny, Eddy and Fanny knew each other previously. Fanny had seen a poster for Phase 1 of my research in the Middletown Ontario Works office and had been in touch as that phase was closing, at which time I got permission to be in touch when Phase 2 began to see if she might participate. She then recruited Eddy and later Danny; they had known each other since high school.
Crissy was recruited through the [college upgrading program] in Littletown.
During the first phase of my research I was unable to successfully recruit any non-migrant youth from Lake County and so this group represents, and was my attempt to engage, that 'invisible' population in order to hear directly from them about whether their perceptions and thoughts differred in any significant way from other non-migrants, and why they thought they were invisible.
I began our session with a brief overview of the research to date and gave some context to the focus group (as outlined above) and went on to explain that unfortunately I was unable to arrange for a scribe, but that I would instead be recording comments on a flip-chart and would circulate the transcription electronically for any corrections that they wished to make.
Some details that surfaced later on in the discussion have been integrated into the introductions that follow for the sake of clarity.
Eddy is a 20-year-old male who lives with his mother in Rapidsville. His father was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, was aggressive, and left the home when Eddy was six or seven and is not in contact. His brother, 10 years older than he, left the family a year before his father. Eddy’s mother was a self-employed web designer who has been disabled with fibromyalgia for 4 years. Eddy just completed the intermediate phase of a carpentry apprenticeship. He lives independently in his mother’s home, splitting the rent and fending for himself (e.g. shops, cooks for himself, comes and goes without permission). He has had a vehicle since high school as it is required in his work.
Fanny is a female African American Latina, age 20. She described that her father was a gangster and her mother was dependent on the government, ‘crazy’, and had 10 kids with different fathers and ‘got money from anyone she can’. Fanny helps her mother and siblings out financially when she can. She left home at age four into the child welfare system, returned home at six or seven, went back in at nine, and then was fostered by an abusive aunt and uncle at age 10/11. She considers they were motivated by money, and has a low opinion of the child welfare system (‘messed’) who repeatedly missed seeing indications of abuse. She moved out on her own at age 13 or 14, couch surfing and considers that she has moved every three or four months her whole life. She lived in [many villages as well as Littletown] throughout Lake County. In spite of this transience, she managed to graduate high school with a 90% average. She attributes her courage and resilience to ‘knowing what I don’t want’.
At age 16, over her aunt and uncle’s resistance, she moved in with her best friend’s family who have become her ‘real’ new family; she is accepted as family and lives there, in Rapidsville, rent free (which allows her to support her birth family to some extent). She earns money through two part-time jobs and hopes to start a co-op in architecture, her true love, in September. Her part-time jobs are commission-based work in the health movement and financial services, where she does multi-level marketing. While some describe this as a pyramid scheme, she sees it as a self-owned business in which she hires others to their mutual benefit. She has been doing this work since November 2012. She found it easy to get into; it required that she have a criminal record check, be bondable and coachable. The company who hired her paid for her to attend a 2-week (?) training program valued at $8000. The cost to Fanny to get into this line of work was only $49.
During her introduction, Alicia asked Fanny whether she could suggest how the CAS worker might have gotten a more accurate picture of family life, since Alicia does this kind of work on occasion. Fanny said she didn’t think it was possible because a child is more intimidated by the family than by the worker. She feels that her sisters should not be with her mother, but CAS, although they are involved, ‘don’t pay attention’. The way in which families ensure that the real truth is not revealed depends on the age of the children; they are many ways to manipulate.
I then asked Alicia to introduce herself, out of sequence, so the group would have some context for her enquiry.
Alicia explained that she runs a small treatment foster home program (10 beds) which ‘sells’ beds to CASs. Her program supports the child and foster family. Fanny asked, "How do you support them?" Alicia said they have a worker who goes into the foster homes, and in addition, the children often stay with Alicia for respite, which allows her to get to know them. The issue, for her, is trusting what kids say. She has fostered for many years, and herself came from a rough background in which she was, perhaps like Fanny, transient and on her own for much of her childhood. She got into this work because she wanted to make it better for other children.
Barry interjected to say he stayed in Alicia’s home – followed by a discussion between them about for how long.
Lastly, Fanny offered that the only CAS worker in her experience who ever figured out what was happening, in spite of Fanny denying it, and moved her, was fired for ‘paying attention’.
Alicia asked if she thought it was better to move a child if you believed a child was unhappy, even if the child said they didn’t want to move? Fanny said it depended, that she still has ‘moving anxiety’. There was discussion about the relative positives and negatives of ‘the devil you know versus the devil you don’t’. Alicia said that caregivers and people in the system work under legal limitations that often limits what they can do, regardless of what they think should be done. Fanny thought the system was too worried about its own well-being, generally.
Danny was asked to introduce himself next. He just turned 20 and lives with his parents in Rapidsville. They lived in Littletown until he was 10 and then moved to Rapidsville. His father worked until five years ago when he was diagnosed with lymph cancer; he was given two months to live ‘but is still here’ and expects to be given clearance to return to work soon. His mother is an RPN who works with seniors in a hospital setting. Danny finished school last June and went to work with his uncle in [a large town to the south] in October through December, installing furnaces and oil tanks. He lived with his uncle while he was there and returned home when he was laid off because of declining work. He was disappointed that his boss had his uncle tell him he was laid off, rather than telling him directly. Danny is renting a room in his mom’s basement, supported through welfare; he comes and goes as he pleases.
There was some confusion about whether Danny was on welfare or Employment Insurance (EI), perhaps welfare because employers wouldn’t give ROEs (record of employment which trigger EI). A discussion ensued about EI; both Eddy and Danny have experienced difficulties with employers giving ROEs in a timely manner, or at all, and EI takes a long time to come through. EI staff are not very helpful, Eddy said ‘not whatsoever’. Some discussion about whether they felt that they were treated like this because of their youth followed. Perhaps, but maybe because they were doing seasonal or casual work. There is a tendency for employers and the system to make it be the problem of the employee. Eddy said that you had to get angry and assertive with Service Canada to get action; he’d gone to Service Canada about employers refusing to give him ROE, they’d agreed to contact the employers and he got EI in a week.
This morphed into a larger discussion about exercising rights. You can get a reputation for being hard to get along with that can be used against you and/or people say that to scare you into not fighting for your rights. Danny told of an incident where his family had rented space to a family friend who was raided by police for drugs, and he offered to leave within two days (so they didn’t have to kick him out). Eddy spoke about how his family was evicted from a trailer park because the owner had more trailers on the land than was permitted by the severance agreement. They fought it in the courts for one and a half years, by which time Eddy had finished grade 8, so they gave up the fight and moved. They had a ‘shitty lawyer’ through Legal Aid and eventually made an out-of-court settlement.
Crissy had gotten up from her chair early in the process, when Eddy spoke about his father’s diagnosis of schizophrenia, and was moving about somewhat restlessly, so I asked her to introduce herself next, skipping over Barry.
Crissy is 28. She was raised in [a village in Lake County]. Her father left the family ‘without charges’ when she was five, very soon after her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Her mother died when Crissy was 14, a prolonged process during which Crissy thought her mother was sometimes used as a medical ‘test subject’. Her mother was a ‘wonderful mother’ who had made arrangements for Crissy and her sister to live with their godparents, but they were getting old and it was decided better for them to live with an aunt and uncle who had children of a similar age. Crissy considers that the aunt and uncle took them in out of a sense of duty and thought they would be just like their own kids, and while the aunt tried to treat them the same, Crissy didn’t feel at home. She recalls that she was told to ‘be strong’ and ‘don’t cry’ [about her mother’s death] and to honour that [her aunt] had ‘her sister and niece to worry about’, and that Crissy wanted to be ‘the person who understood [her mother] being in a better place’ so she never let out her feelings. At 16, attending high school in Rapidsville, she began experimenting with marijuana and alcohol which accentuated her pain and allowed her to bawl and cry for her losses. She was a good student and a reliable worker, babysitting/working from age 12 on.
This initiated a discussion on the importance of recognizing and supporting children’s grief, a theme from Phase 1. Crissy had referenced a Portugese custom that allowed public wailing following a death, and I reminisced about a 3-day wake in a Newfoundland outport in which people wailed, danced, got drunk, told stories, and generally had a communal outpouring of emotion following the death of a young woman. Danny recalled his sister in Sudbury ‘throwing a funeral three days before his 13th birthday’ – the specificity of the recollection is an indication of its importance.
Crissy’s complicated history was entwined in this discussion. She graduated high school with honours and then left her aunt and uncle’s home to go to college in Toronto, ‘to get away from the family’, school being the ‘only acceptable reason’ – a decision ‘I’m paying for… now.’ The family warned her about her mental health, perhaps because she was always an ‘eccentric person’, and didn’t expect her to last two months, but she loved it. She racked up lots of debt, from school expenses and on her credit care and ‘did everything mom said not to’. Crissy wanted to check [life] out for herself, trying to figure out her mom’s life before she had kids, ‘everything she couldn’t talk to me about’.
I asked whether her aunt could have filled in some of those gaps; Crissy said ‘a little, but it’s not the same.’
Crissy left school at 20 and worked in a secure job for three years. When she was 22, her mental health began to fail, self-medicated / exacerbated by drug use. She smoked marijuana to stop voices in her head that she thought was her conscience. She describes herself as a ‘soul-searcher, searching for myself’ and used drugs to expand her mind and fill in the spaces. She was also struggling with having abnormal facial hair during this time, which also caused her to turn to drugs. She was fired from her work at age 24 and hospitalized in CAMH [large mental hospital in Toronto] with delusional thoughts. She recognized she had a serious drug problem when she graduated to injecting opiates. She began to exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia at 25 and was diagnosed at 27, following hospitalization after her boyfriend died of a drug overdoes. She managed to get clean but relapsed two weeks after discharge and has been on Methadone since October 2012.
Her family ‘vanished’ when they heard she was doing drugs, and ‘didn’t want to have much to do with me’ and her mental health problems. ‘The people I thought would always be her for me disappeared. But there was always somebody to catch me.’ Who? At age 25, Crissy was volunteering at a food bank/thrift store and was ‘hugely impressed’ by a volunteer who ‘took on the mama role’.
Barry finally got to take his turn. He is 21, living with a family on the outskirts of Littletown. He has a diagnosis of Aspergers and is on ODSP. He finished high school and planned to go directly to work, but is ‘scared of growing up’ and ‘don’t want my childhood to be over.’ He also has some issues related to his condition – inability to manage crowds, hyper sensitive to noise and confusion. And he has difficulty differentiating between fact and fiction, perhaps due to early family circumstances. He was raised by his grandmother, whom he thought was his mother, and his great-grandmother, whom he thought was his grandmother. At age 10 he figured out that ‘a nice lady [with several children] who came to visit me every so often’ was in fact his birth mother. His grandmother/acting mom alleged that she ‘saved him’ from his birth mother, who beat him. Barry was ‘unsure what was fact and what was fiction’ and thinks that his families habit of lying passed on to him, that he too was a liar.
At 13 he was diagnosed with Aspergers and began to be involved with the care system as a child with special needs, not a child in need of protection. His grandmother/acting mom vacillated between not being able to manage his behaviour, and insisting that he be at home. Alicia, who was part of the system that offered care, offered that his diagnosis increased the amount of money available to care-givers, including his grandmother/acting mom. In care, he had access to other sources of information and struggled to figure out what was true and what wasn’t, and ended up feeling he couldn’t trust anyone.
This initiated a discussion about what children should or should not be told. Eddy remembers putting his memory of his father, a violent paranoid schizophrenic who did not comply with his treatment regime, whom he experienced as a young child as a ‘scary devil’, in the context of research on the illness when he was a teenager, exploring whether he should try and bring his father back into his life. It helped him think differently about his dad and to decide that reconnecting with him would not be helpful.
I asked how he felt about the history of schizophrenia in his family, its potential implications for him. He said his mom had talked to him when he was about 18, warning him not to mess with drugs. Fanny said she thought it was not good to tell people about things like this; that she had been told [something] and over-analyzed and drove herself crazy.
Barry continued with his story. While he was staying with the third family with which he had been placed, his grandmother/acting mom ‘became lesbian’ and moved to [a northern city] with a new partner, leaving him with no family and no support after 18 (because he wasn’t a ward). He had made a friend during high school of a boy who also had Aspergers and was invited to become part of their family. Family life is ‘turbulent’, there’s quite a lot of drama and they butt heads a lot, ‘like I’ve gone home’, (i.e. like his birth family).
In response to questions from the group, Barry described that he has limited independence. The family lives out of town and he has no transportation other than what other people offer. This also makes it difficult for him to seek employment, or to have a social life or explore things that interest him (e.g. theatre – his favourite thing in high school). The family also expects him to help out with family projects – they’re almost always doing renovations – which made some wonder if he was being exploited.
I asked if he felt he needed more independence. Barry said that on his own he would be starving or dead in a week. Alicia asked him if he knew how to cook. Barry said he did but he couldn’t get the food because of his crowd anxiety, which makes him defensive and even violent. He would also be very lonely.
Alicia and her two passengers needed to leave, so we went fairly quickly around the circle to ask whether each participant felt that the decision to leave home was motivated by getting away from something (pushed) or by seeking something.
Barry said he was pushed out, he had no choice. ODSP was supposed to offer him help finding employment but he’s never seen a worker, doesn’t think he has one. He would like to find work in the dramatic arts, but doesn’t know how that might be accomplished.
Crissy said she was in both categories: pushed, in that she went to university to get out of her aunt’s house, to not be controlled, to leave behind the feeling of not belonging. But choosing in that she wanted to go to university and have her own life.
Alicia, Barry and Crissy left at this point, and the others continued.
Eddy felt strongly that he had chosen his path and was getting what he was seeking. He had had two co-ops and a semester in woodshop while still in high school (OYAP). He had good support from his mom, and adequate financial support from the government (EI).
Fanny also said she fit in both categories. She wanted to leave her family home because she knew what she didn’t want to be (pushed) but she also was pulled by the need to prove everyone wrong [about how she would turn out]. It has not been an easy path; she disclosed that she was in quite a bit of trouble – she self-harmed (cut herself), stole, smoked dope from age 10 to 18, but didn’t get caught. In fact she ‘got off on not getting caught’.
We explored whether the frisson of danger, of walking close to the edge, was part of her coping strategy. She did have a patch of hospitalization with diagnoses of severe depression and bi-polar.
There was discussion about resilience, the importance of seeing not only what the problem behaviours are, but recognizing tough behaviour as a mechanism for coping with tough circumstances.
Danny felt he chose to leave in order to see the outside world and get away from two bad uncles, one a druggie, the other an alcoholic, by going to live with a ‘good’ uncle in [the southern city]. His parents are supportive.
I took advantage of a lull in the conversation to return to the issue of not being able to find participants by going through agencies that in theory serve youth in rural areas, asking whether any of them had used agency assistance, or tried to and what was their experience?
Danny had also used OYAP – two co-ops and two woodworking courses, and he would give them a four on a scale of one to five where five is excellent. Eddy did not think that Career Counselling at high school was useful – would give them one on a scale of one to five where five is excellent. The trouble with OYAP placements is that teenagers are dissed, so good people don’t want to work with them. Eddy described how he had very assertively recruited the employer he wanted to do his apprenticeship with. He recognized his truck and went up to him when he had stopped, had a resume in his hand, and told him he wanted to work with him. It’s been a good relationship; his employer has a son with Aspergers and is very patient. He has told Eddy that he has good work ethic. (Later in the discussion Eddy demonstrated how informed and confident he is about how the apprenticeship system works by instructing Danny about how to go about getting into an apprenticeship.)
A discussion about work ethic followed, centering around the simple question: What creates good work ethic? The participants felt that bad work ethic was predominant among privileged kids who had a life-owes-me attitude. Danny said he’d been working since he was eight because his mom needed money coming into the house and was limited by her fibromyalgia.
I next asked the group whether they planned to stay rural, or if they will go urban?
Eddy said he’d stay rural; he likes his own space, hates honking horns and urban noise, is already self-employed and has a vehicle, so he’s good to go.
Fanny would also stay rural. She likes peace and quiet. She was at [community college in Toronto] for a year, found it sucked, and left to look for work in spring of 2012. She has a vehicle, which is essential for getting employment.
The discussion turned to housing. Danny said ‘losing your house bursts your ego’ and told the story of losing a house they’d rented for quite some while, unexpectedly, because the owner decided to sell. They moved into Rapidsville but had a ‘rich bitch’ neighbor who was very unwelcoming – called the township to threaten them to clean up as they were moving in – and has been very hard to get along with since; her attitude is improving a bit since Danny’s mom is working as a nurse in the hospital. The school move, grade 3, was difficult, made easier by an old teacher moving to the new school. Eddy also recalled he and his mother living in a shelter for two-three days when he was 15, during the time when their trailer was ordered moved from the property on which it sat.
I next asked the group: What is the essential service needed for young people to stay rural? The group thought was that an affordable, predictable bus system throughout Lake County, connecting to Middletown, with runs that supported regular work hours, was crucial.
Both Eddy and his mom have vehicles, and Fanny has a vehicle. Danny has a vehicle but it needs work to be certifiable, and he needs to get his license and insurance. There was discussion of this as being essential for him if he is going to build on his OYAP experience and proceed toward an apprenticeship.
The group discussed how this bus service should link Lockville, Rapidville, Littletown, [another village] and Middletown and during this discussion some challenges were identified. One being that it is one and a quarter hour trip with no stops, maybe as much as two hours with stops, which is a very long commute. [A large town to the south] was seen as a best practice case. I asked about a pilot project on local busses – I'd heard it had been discontinued as unsuccessful. The group thought it had not been well promoted as they were unaware of details, and that there was perhaps, also an issue of unpredictability. Littletown bus service was also seen as being very substandard, and expensive – busses were generally seen as expensive by the group.
The boys in the group also felt that MTCU [Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities] needed to be better informed. Workers were seen as overworked and uninformed. Eddy told of being told conflicting answers by outreach workers and, "Outreach workers don't outreach."
At this point the next group who was using the space began to arrive and we had to divvy up the remaining food and leave, although there was a sense that more could have been said. The group gathered at 2:30 but started discussion about 3:00, after taking care of paperwork and waiting a while for the people who didn’t show. Alicia, Barry and Crissy left at about 5:00 and Danny, Eddy and Fanny left by 6:00 or shortly thereafter.